THE ELEMENT OF "CORN" IN JAZZ IMPROVISATION

by Don Ellis

It is my belief that there is a tendency among the so-called "modern" or "hip" jazz musicians to consider styles other than their own, "corny," and it is my contention that in actuality it is these musicians who are producing that which in future years perceptive critics will deem "corny." Perhaps "corn" is a poor choice for a term, however, the connotations and meanings surrounding the colloquial use of this word today express most accurately what is meant. Let us define it.

A popular definition might be: "that which is unfashionable at the moment." If we saw someone dressed in a suit from the 1890's (to take an extreme example) we would probably consider him an "odd-ball," a very "un-hip" or "corny" person--even though this suit were brand new, exquisitely tailored, of the finest fabric, and in the most fashionable 1890 style. This is the first point that must be noted: the popular conception of "corn" has no relation to the object in question's actual worth or value. It generally refers indiscriminately to something of an older style. At one time by a certain genre of jazz musicians, classical music was considered "corny" and deemed "long-hair" music. It seems unlikely that any serious jazz musician today would think (for example) Mozart, Bartok, or Webern "corny." Anyone who listened to Dixieland jazz was at one time called a "mouldy-fig." I believe that most serious jazz thinkers today realize that much good music was created within this particular style.

The question which must be answered is: can music which is genuinely heartfelt ever be "corny? " And my answer is no, it can only be, at worst, awkward. As we see in folk music quite often, emotion transforms what might otherwise be considered "corny" (i.e.. trite, banal, sentimental) music into valid, moving art. I submit that "CORN" IN ART COMES FROM DOING SOMETHING BECAUSE IT SEEMS FASHIONABLE AT THE TIME.

In recent years we have seen even so basic an element to jazz as swing become unfashionable and "corny." Which brings up the question: should jazz swing all the time? There has been a transition from a "hot" way of playing to a "cool" way and now a return to the "hot" feeling. We have seen jazz played with a 2/4 feeling (a straight 2/4, and with accents on the first and third beats of a 4/4 bar, and on the second and fourth beats), and a 4/4 (straight four) feeling, and more recently 3/4 and 5/4 with more combinations to come. Jazz has unconsciously been played for years in triplet feelings (12/8, 6/8, etc.) without actually being notated that way. It has been amply demonstrated that it is possible to "swing" in all of these feelings, but (especially) among the 4/4 and 2/4 followers, bitter battles have been fought with each side claiming victory. The truth in the matter lies in the fact that anything repeated too long without variation tends to become boring. My suggestion for a solution to the problem is: make use of all ways of swinging, including more involved patterns not yet in general use, and vary them Keep jazz rhythmically interesting to the listener.

Harmony, also, is not immune to the criticism of "corniness." Within each style of jazz there seems to be a limited harmonic texture. True, this appears to have been expanding (from simple triads to eleventh and thirteenth chords and polyharmonies, for example), but this is somewhat a false picture as may be seen very easily by examining the bulk of modern jazz pianists. Most seem to move within a very limited harmonic texture. Each individual's voicings tend to sound rather static within the style. To state it simply: a piano player today may be playing thirteenth chords in place of triads, but then he uses all thirteenth chords and never a triad. if one takes all the styles in jazz harmonically from the earliest beginnings to the latest experiments, he still has a rather limited scope when compared to the rest of music in the world. Why should a craftsman not make use of all his tools if they will promote a greater communication and expressiveness? This is not to deny that beautiful things can be fashioned out of very modest means, but what possible objection can there be towards an artist trying to be more resourceful?

Except for the real creators, most modern jazz musicians today are playing "corny." They are the adherents of the "hip school," playing other people's phrases, with other people's feelings glued on, playing things they have worked out and know will sound good merely to "gas" the audience. They have not learned that this year's fashion is next year's "corn," and that to be a true artist you have to play the way you feel--not the way others think you should feel. Of course, if you play ideas you "know" you can always sound "good." It is impossible for the true creator to sound "good" all the time. On the other hand, it is much easier to be accepted if you play like everyone else, and you will get more jobs. It depends on where your values lie.

It is my contention that the jazz musician can be deeper and much more valuable if he will play according to the dictates of HIS heart, and if he will strive to incorporate the WHOLE of jazz in his work. Playing this way he need never worry about being "corny."

Don Ellis Nov. 1959 (revised Sept. 1960)

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